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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Wandering Falcon -- Book Review

A literary debut at the age of 78 is unusual, to say the least. But when that maiden foray into the world of literature carries the promise of greatness, you know you are witnessing the birth of a very special writer. It is for this reason that I read The Wandering Falcon with a sense of wonder and growing delight. For, seldom does one get the opportunity to read such spare but exquisite prose and rarer still is the writer who has such a sure grasp of his story.
 Jamil Ahmad, born in Jalandhar in 1933, acquired degrees in Law and History from the University of the Punjab, joined the Civil Service of Pakistan beginning in 1954, and served mainly in the Frontier Province and in Baluchistan. He was posted as Minister in Pakistan’s Embassy in Kabul at a critical time before and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. At the time of his posting in the Frontier Province, he acquired a working knowledge of Pushto and the fluency continued to improve with increased usage. This facility allowed him to interact freely with the local people. At one point, with the help of some friends from the Afridi tribe, he walked into the Tirah Valley, the heartland of the Afridis. This initiative created quite a stir, as it was the first-ever venture into this territory by a government representative. Currently living in Islamabad with his wife Helga Ahmad, a nationally recognized environmentalist and social worker who was awarded the Fatima Jinnah Gold Medal in 2007, my prediction is that Jamil Ahmad will be the Next Big Thing to have hit Pakistani literature.
Quite apart from its glimpse into life in the ‘forbidden’ remote areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, The Wandering Falcon has been conceived in a most unusual way: as a series of inter-linked stories, each self-contained as chapters yet linked by a story that runs through. In an interview conducted from my home in New Delhi with Mr Ahmad via email, I wonder if this is by happy serendipity or was it so devised for a particular reason? Mr Ahmad tells me how he was posted in Swat as Commissioner in 1971 after it had been merged into Pakistan. By then, he had spent over a decade as political officer in the tribal areas of Pakistan -- in Quetta-Pishin and Chagai in Baluchistan, Khyber and Malakand (covering Dir, Swat and Chitral), the Frontier and Dera Ismail Khan (covering North and South Waziristan). With some free time on his hands he thought initially of writing poetry. His wife, however, was dismissive about the quality of the few pieces he produced and suggested instead that he focus on the tribal areas, as much of his life had been spent in these areas.
Mr Ahmad took this advice and started scribbling a few bits and pieces, which Helga immediately transcribed on her typewriter with a German keyboard.  Friends suggested that it be converted into fiction with a central character around which the book could be structured. Mr Ahmad, however, demurred, believing that a perpetually strong central character is unnatural. ‘I feel a human being is like a twig carried by a strong current. It is only for brief moments and infrequently that he bobs to the surface, but is then rapidly swept into the depth of the stream of life,’ he says explaining the sequential nature of his narrative. One story from the book — The Sins of the Mother, about an eloping Baluch couple who risk everything by fleeing from their tribe — has been showcased in the Pakistan issue of Granta and generated a fair amount of interest in this most unusual author. The book’s history is just as remarkable as the events it reflects. By 1974 the manuscript was completed in its raw form; it hibernated for over three decades. About three years ago, Mr Ahmad brother, younger by fifteen years, heard of a short story competition being organized. Since he vaguely remembered some ‘pieces’ Mr Ahmad had written, he asked Helga Ahmad to make a copy and send it across. From that point onwards, events moved swiftly. Mr Ahmad’s brother felt that the manuscript merited being treated as a whole – not merely as a short story. He also strongly urged Mr Ahmad to refine it. Once suitably re-worked, it caught the attention of Ms. Faiza Sultan Khan and through her, Meru Gokhale at Penguin, who acted as its Fairy Godmother.
Reading this slim book at a gallop, I was amazed at the way in which it takes you by the hand and guides you deep into a folded land of hills and valleys. Occupied by a tribal people united under the banner of Islam but governed by a more ancient code of conduct, this is a dark world of abject poverty, deprivation and want but one that is also lit from within. Translucent beams of Life irradiate it. The will to live, the zeal to carry on with dignity and grace, the inherent desire in human beings – no matter how lowly or brought low by fate and circumstance -- to rise above the human condition permeates this seemingly dark domain that could have been wretched but is inexplicably not in the least wretched. A deeply ingrained sense of honour, justice and loyalty permeates a world that is as harsh and unforgiving as it is inscrutable to the outsider.
Jamil Ahmad brings a rare insight and compassion to a subject and a people that have invariably invited fear and mistrust. Asked what is the greatest bane of the life of these peoples, Mr Ahmad says:
‘The problem faced by the tribal people living in a harsh terrain are, by and large, no different from the more affluent people living in the fertile and productive areas. In my opinion, a feeling of envy, lust exists in equal measure in all societies. However, tribal societies have generally evolved a better system to manage ‘conflict resolutions’ than other forms of collectivities. The one negative factor which one comes across frequently -- especially in Pakhtun areas -- is the absence of equal rights to those who do not belong to the dominant tribe of the area.’
And the greatest blessing? His answer is equally unequivocal:
‘Their greatest blessing is that their system is simple and stable. The line between right and wrong is drawn clearly. In the two years I spent in the Baluch area of Chagai, there was not a single theft; the Mengal tribe who used to migrate southwards during winter used to leave their houses unlocked and their stores of grain unprotected. Nobody ever touched the grain or the possessions they left behind.’
The tribal areas are commonly perceived as remote and impenetrable and their people as inscrutable and incorrigible. Did he find it so? Again, one is struck by the empathy with which Mr Ahmed views his former charges when he says,
I had and still retain a great respect for their code of life. I think the Baluch, particularly, can hold their heads high in any assembly of men. A one-line prescription in the British Government hand-book suggests: “Honor the Baluch”. As for “inscrutable”, I was amazed at the candor, openness and loyalty I was offered. Despite belonging to the plains of Punjab and speaking the local language imperfectly, I never felt an alien during my two decades with the tribes. Tribesmen tend to judge the qualities of the political officer by his code of conduct. He is offered respect if his quality of integrity, work ethics and fair play pass their test. If he fails to qualify, then disaster follows.’
Set in the decades before the onset of talibanisation, The Wandering Falcon allows us to wander, like the falcon that soars high over hill and dale, but takes in the minutest detail of life on the ground with its razor-sharp gaze. Appropriately enough, it has a boy protagonist, Tor Baz or the hunting falcon, the outsider looking in who connects the series of stories. While each chapter can be read as a self-contained short story, together they narrate the rite of passage of a boy -- whose lineage is unknown, whose parents were a run-away couple killed in cold blood to avenge the family honour, who belongs to neither this tribe nor that – as he learns to survive in a world that is both cruel and gentle, harsh and loving, fragile and unrelenting, timeless yet changing.
The notion of honour and its concomitant principles of loyalty, fidelity and truthfulness string the stories together as much as the coming of age of Tor Baz from infancy to adulthood. Underlying everything is a complicated and carefully maintained sense of hierarchy. For instance: ‘Those who possessed buffaloes and migrated every year looked down on those who owned only goats. Those with a few patches of land hewn into the high mountainsides would not marry into those who did not have any.’ Winters of misery and desperation followed by the short-lived spring of hope and the summer months of wandering are leavened by a highly codified set of principles that govern every moment from birth till death.
While the story of Tor Baz is fascinating for its glimpse into a world less travelled, Jamil Ahmad’s prose makes it compelling and real. For a writer who has debuted at an age when most are putting down their pens, he writes with a surprising ease and confidence. Simple, spare and stark, his words are unembellished by rhetorical flourishes, his sentences shorn of even a trace of artifice or artfulness. There are no fancy turns of phrase, no verbal acoustics, no play upon words, nothing in fact to draw away from the stories he wants to tell in as straightforward a manner as possible. Here is writing – the finest one has read in a very long time in English by a South Asian writer – that ebbs and flows with such effortless ease and conveys the essence of the story in such few words that it catches you unawares with its freshness.

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